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Sabbath & Justice

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Proper 16, Year C, RCL, Track 1 Luke 13:10-17

In Genesis, we read, And God “rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.[i] In this passage we find that God rested on the seventh day, yet in his repose, he still created something. God created rest.

In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, this idea is expanded as part of the ten commandments. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”[ii]

Sabbath or Shabbat is Saturday, the seventh day. And in Judaism, they follow Shabbat Minkhah, which means Sabbath of rest. According to Essential Judaism by George Robinson, this is “’a rest of love freely given, a rest of truth and sincerity, a rest in peace and tranquility, in quietude and safety. ‘Yet at the same time, it is a rest yoked in the same breath to ‘holiness’. And inextricably linked to that concept is the fact that this rest comes from the Almighty and exits so that we might glorify God’s name, to bring holiness to God.” He goes on to say, “We are not beasts of burden. We should not live to work. We should not be chained to routine. Shabbat unchains us.”[iii]

The Second Temple Period starts about 500 years before Christ and ends 40 years after his death, culminating with the destruction of the second temple. During this time, rabbis began to codify Jewish law and came up with 35 categories of prohibitions for Shabbat. Generally, these were things done to produce or harvest a crop. Produce fabric or clothing. This included the total production of leather from hunting and cleaning, to the use of parchment such as writing, erasing, and correcting. Construction work was also prohibited along with other things such as to produce or extinguish a fire.

With the advent of more modern technology, Judaism had to wrestle with the use of modern equipment that may be considered work. From the orthodox point of view, this includes turning on a light switch or a sink faucet, or even your stove. You are allowed to read, attend study groups, play board games, and nap. Shabbat is a time to be with God, family, and close friends. For people who like to work in a garden, this is out, for it is too much like what farmers do. There are exceptions to the law, mainly for the purpose of preserving property or life in extreme situations. If a house is on fire, you can put it out. If an animal or person is severely injured, you can do what is needed to save their life. For some of us, this all sounds extreme maybe even to the point of ridiculous. But this is what the faithful people of God believed back in the day and many Jewish people still practice today.

In the Christian tradition, Sunday became the Sabbath. In large part, this is because theologically speaking Sunday became both the first day, the day a new creation began, through the resurrection of Christ, and the last day, in which life as we knew it ended. So, in celebration of Christ's resurrection, Sunday became the most important day and took on many of the characteristics of the Sabbath.

From this perspective, it wasn’t too many years ago when Sunday was a day of rest for most people in our country. Many stores would be closed. You never had school activities such as performances or sports games on a Sunday. Next to Sunday, Wednesday evenings were almost equally held for religious learning, or mid-week prayer services, and Eucharist. Most of us remember how these days were highly regarded. As a matter a fact, my grandfather got excommunicated from his German Baptist Church, one Sunday afternoon. In the early 1920’s he was just a teenager playing marbles on the church steps with his friends when his pastor caught them disgracing the Lord ’s Day.

With this history, we can hopefully see how serious people have taken the Sabbath long before Jesus came onto the scene. But what Jesus is pointing out is the inequality in which laws can be used. The people of the day would untie their animals to get food, water, and exercise. Though according to the law, this is prohibited. The people were to leave their animals free on the Sabbath. They were to let them out of their restraints. But the animals would wander to other people’s property. This seemed to occasionally cause issues in reclaiming them. So the people kept them tied up most of the Sabbath and made exceptions to the law. Jesus says if we can let our animals free for a few minutes, why should I not be able to let this woman free for the rest of her life? This whole incident happened in front of a crowd and some synagogue leaders.

These leaders didn’t see the hypocrisy in what they said. The people in the crowd heard Jesus’ argument and saw the hypocrisy. They cheered for the woman and Jesus as he puts the leaders to shame. It is us, the people who can see when the laws in our society are being used with inequality; where someone with great wealth can receive no punishment for a crime. Or as a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found, prison sentences given to black men are on average about 20% longer than white men for similar crimes.[iv]

I understand it is difficult to change our justice system, but we can ask for more transparency. We can ask for data to be given more freely and sentencing to be doled out justly. We can look at ourselves and think of the things we do. If we call the police on a suspicious person, we might ask ourselves, if this person looked more like me, would I still consider what they are doing to be suspicious? If a person visits our congregation, does their appearance change the way we welcome them?

What is also true is that we all have tendencies to prefer people who look like ourselves. We have these tendencies regardless of our race or affiliation and often we are unaware of them. Awareness is the best way to deal with biases and our church offers several ways to learn more. The Diocese of Kentucky and Lexington are co-sponsoring an event on September 14, on racism and truth-telling. We have Dismantling Racism workshops available via Zoom or in person with dates from September through November.

It may not seem that Jesus was speaking about racism, but he was clearly speaking about justice. I wonder, if the woman who was healed, was one of the Synagogue leaders’ wives, if they would have complained? The hallmark of justice is that everyone is treated equally and when we have trouble seeing someone as equal or empathizing with their situation, then it is difficult to administer Justice.


[i] Gen 2:2b-3 NRSV

[ii] Exo 10:8-11 cf. Deu 5:12-15

[iii] Essential Judaism: A complete guide to beliefs, customs, and rituals. By George Robinson: Pocket Books, NY; 2000 pgs. 81-84


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